BDI Senior VP Creative James Read shares practical examples of how creative thinking and ideation can help nonprofit organizations grow.

How to Inspire Donors with your Nonprofit Story

Harness the Power of Ideas to Grow Your Organization

By James Read, Senior Vice President, Creative

“No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come,” declared the French writer Victor Hugo.

He was right. Throughout history, well known figures such as Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, and Marie Curie – to name just a few – stand tall in history as big thinkers whose ideas have permanently changed the course of human events.

However, we may be less familiar with the role of ideation and creative thinking in the charitable sector in which we serve. But make no mistake: the biggest nonprofit organizations in the world today are the direct result of powerful ideas. And the organizations that continue to grow and adapt are investing in creative thinking and taking bold steps to change the world.

As we head into the busy fall fundraising season, I encourage you to take a short break from the daily flurry of meetings and emails… and spend a few minutes with me pondering three ways to harness the power of ideas to grow your organization and raise more money for greater impact.

1. Know the Big Idea Behind Your Organization

William Booth was heartbroken by the horrible conditions of the poor in 19th century England. An ordained minister, Booth had a big idea: what if he took the church to the people who needed it most, instead of waiting for them to come to the church? Along with his wife Catherine, William began preaching on the streets, and soon had an army of former thieves, drunks, and prostitutes who ministered along with him. His ragtag group grew rapidly and today it’s known as The Salvation Army, one of the largest charities in the world.

In most medium to large American cities, you’ll find similar stories. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, caring individuals had the idea to do something to help their city’s neediest citizens, and they established rescue missions that are still thriving and changing lives in the 21st century. Most food banks, animal shelters, and other local charities have similar origin stories.

So what are the takeaways for us? Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What is the big idea behind your organization? What caused the founders to risk their time, their funds, and perhaps their reputations to begin the organization you serve?
  • Do your organization’s donors know your origin story?
  • Do your organization’s communications still reflect the energy, zeal, and passion of your founders?

For many organizations, the answer to the last two questions is “No.” As nonprofit communicators, we often forget to involve our donors in the drama of our story. Our communications become full of technical jargon with all the interesting parts pruned away by the legal department. We share facts but we forget to inspire.

The action item heading into fall is to make sure the big, motivating idea of your organization is reflected in your messaging. Illustrate it with heartbreaking yet heartwarming stories. Let your heart bleed on the page or screen. Where appropriate, remind donors of your origin story. Help your constituents care deeply while giving them practical ways to make a difference, just like your founders did.

2. Create Offers that Activate the Big Idea of Your Organization

Once you’ve reacquainted yourself with the big idea of your organization, take some time to evaluate the fundraising offers you are extending to your donors during the fall fundraising season. An offer is a value proposition, often expressed as “My gift of $A will accomplish X.” Are you giving donors meaningful ways to participate in the compelling story of your organization?

One of the greatest offers in fundraising history is the meal offer so frequently used by rescue missions, typically expressed as “My gift of $X will provide a meal and care for someone devastated by homelessness.” Food banks have a similar offer, often expressed as “Every $1 you give will provide $X worth of food for a neighbor in need.” For as long as humans have existed, we’ve shared food with one another, and that makes these offers dynamite for fundraising.

The lesson? If your organization has tangible offers that tap into basic human needs, don’t hesitate to use them during the fall fundraising season! While these offers may seem simple or one-dimensional, they tap deeply into what makes us human and give your donors a powerful way to participate in the big idea of your organization.

However, many other organizations in healthcare, the arts, advocacy, and other verticals lack tangible “dollar handles” that are compelling to donors. For these organizations, the whole of what they are accomplishing is greater than parts of how they do it. For example, for a healthcare organization, it’s probably more motivating to communicate about exciting new research projects than to ask donors to provide $50 for 15 minutes of a researcher’s time. The big picture is often a more motivating offer than the specifics.

If your organization falls into this category, your task is to find ways to communicate the drama of your organization’s big idea through stories, special projects, and news of breakthroughs, often done in conjunction with proven tactics such as annual fund and membership drives.

3. Dream Boldly About the Future – and Communicate Your Vision to Donors

Living, breathing organizations continue to have new ideas about how to change the world. At BDI, we’ve consistently found that donors get excited when organizations announce an expansion of their services, often done in conjunction with a capital improvement.

One recent example comes from Helping Up Mission (HUM) in Baltimore, MD, a charity dedicated to providing long-term recovery programs for individuals trapped in homelessness and addiction. In the fall of 2021, HUM opened the Center for Women & Children, a beautiful new facility that dramatically expanded their services to women and made room for children for the first time.

We believed the Baltimore community would be thrilled to know about this new outreach, and we counseled HUM to share this exciting news through a region-wide awareness campaign in multiple channels including paid digital media, out-of-home billboards, radio, events, print ads, emails, and direct mail, along with a public relations initiative.  

For this type of campaign, the creative idea is critical. The concept needs to instantly capture the essence of the organization’s vision while motivating donors and prospects to take action. We presented five creative concepts to HUM, and they selected this one:

Explaining why HUM selected this concept, Bob Gehman, then the CEO, stated that people in Baltimore were often frustrated because the city had so many problems that didn’t seem solvable. But providing a safe place for a child and mom with no home was a problem that donors could solve.

The citywide awareness campaign based on this concept was then layered onto HUM’s already robust fundraising communications plan. Running from September to December of 2021, the campaign resulted in hundreds of thousands in revenue over-and-above the previous year, along with heightened awareness throughout the Baltimore community about the innovative work that HUM is doing to serve women and children.

The takeaway? As you head into fall, evaluate the new things you are doing that could give your donors fresh reasons to be excited about your organization. This emphatically does NOT mean you throw out control messages that are proven to raise funds in favor of something new. But it does mean you look for ways to keep donors informed about your organization’s new ideas about changing the world. These ways could range from newsletter articles or weaving the news into your existing controls… to special middle/major donor proposals or even a citywide awareness campaign.

Putting It All Together

“Make no little plans,” the famous architect Daniel Burnham famously once said. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood… make big plans, aim high in hope and work.”

As you head into the fall season, of course it is essential to focus on the tactics of a successful fundraising season – the budgets, approvals, and deployments. But at the same time, don’t forget about the power of ideas to move your donors.

Make sure to inspire your supporters with the big idea behind your organization so they feel they are part of something larger than themselves. Give them tangible ways to participate in your charity’s work through compelling offers. And if your organization is activating some new ideas, find ways to communicate the excitement of what you are doing.

The payoff? You’ll increase your donor’s engagement, boost loyalty, and raise more funds to make your organization’s vital work possible.

  • James Read VP Creative BDI

    James Read, Chief Creative Officer

    For more than 25 years, James has helped nonprofits and cause-driven organizations communicate their world-changing ideas in ways that inspire and motivate people. He has served more than 50 organizations in the United States, Canada and Great Britain, and he helped raise more than a billion dollars. James’s experience includes work for American Red Cross, Muscular Dystrophy Association, World Vision, The Salvation Army and the University of Chicago, along with numerous food banks, rescue missions, cancer centers, humane societies and Christian ministries.

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